Posts Tagged ‘Educational testing’

Is the U.S. educational system failing?

December 11, 2019

My friend James in Texas e-mailed a link to a New York Times article on the latest results of the Program for International Assessment tests, which compare proficiency of students in 79 school systems around the world.

Overall the U.S. results didn’t seem to be that bad.  American children are in the middle of the pack of advanced nations in reading, somewhat below in math, but better overall than in the previous round of tests.  However, as the Times writer pointed out, there are disparities within the averages.

About a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the exam.

Those students, he said, face “pretty grim prospects” on the job market.

James is an architect.  He worked as a substitute school teacher in the 1980s, taught design and algebra in community colleges in the 2000s and is now working on a certificate to teach in high school.  These are his observations from two decades.

1. Detracking – all kids dumped into same classroom, no honors or remedial grouping, no separate special ed class, teacher now must do 5 or 6 different lessons simultaneously instead of one. Advanced kids are bored and essentially teaching themselves, while slower kids are perpetually lost and have stopped even pretending to care.

2. No enforceable conduct standards – no consequences for anything, 2/3 of kids are basically feral, kids know teachers are powerless, with no administrative support, teachers given all responsibility for “classroom management” with zero actual authority, too busy being social workers and ringleaders instead of teaching.

3. Time theft – minimal lunchtime, no recess, obsessively timing every activity to the minute, weeks stolen for state testing, teachers’ weekends stolen for useless seminars and endless meetings. Kids can’t sustain attention enough to think deeply about anything, and teachers don’t have time to breathe, let alone teach.


Massachusetts schools: Why not be like the best?

July 9, 2013

If a factory manager was trying to improve performance, he might try to adopt the best practices of successful manufacturers.   He certainly would not adopt the practices of failing manufacturers.

But this is not what school reformers in the United States do.  They advocate unproven policies (teacher-bashing, union-busting, charter schools) that are typical of the worst systems rather than the best.

A blogger who uses the handle Mike the Mad Biologist pointed out that the Massachusetts school system is by far a leading system not just by United States standards, but by world standards.  So why not, he reasonably asked, simply copy the Massachusetts system.

Here is one of the charts he published on his web log.


Click on Instead of Racing to the Tops or No Children Left Behind, Why Not Just Clone What Massachusetts Has Done? for more of Mad Mike’s data and his full comment.

Click on TIMMS, Alabama and Massachusetts: States Matter for Mad Mike’s detailed report on the educational gap between Massachusetts and Alabama.

The Massachusetts-Alabama gap is not explained by differences in race or economic class.   The average test scores of white students in Alabama are roughly equal to scores of black students in Massachusetts.  No matter how you break things down, Massachusetts is ahead.

So if you really want to improve American schools, the first step would be to look at what Massachusetts, Minnesota and other high-performing states are doing and see if there is a lesson to be learned for states such as Alabama.

But just what is it that Massachusetts is doing right?  It isn’t what Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee recommend, but what is it?  Is it financial support?  Curriculum?  Let me know what you think.


It’s not true what they say about teachers

September 29, 2010

I have too many friends who are teachers in the public schools to accept the prevailing ideas about the school system being ruined by lazy, incompetent teachers and their greedy unions, but I have accepted more than I should the prevailing wisdom that our public school system is a complete failure.

Recently I’ve started reading a web log called The Daily Howler by a standup political comedian named Bob Somerby.  Like Senator Al Franken, he is a comedian who is better informed than supposed experts.  He formerly was a teacher in the Baltimore public schools and then a reporter specializing in educational testing.

His blog is in the form of a daily critique of stupid statements made by journalists, commentators and politicians. He covers politics generally, but of late he has put up a lot of extremely informative material about public schools and student testing.

You need to read his web log to get the full picture, but his main points are:

1.  Scores in basic reading and math tests have been improving for both black and white students in U.S. public schools.  The gap between blacks and whites has remained, but that doesn’t mean that black students aren’t progressing.  Presumably at some point both black and white students will be performing as well as they’re capable, but we’re a long way from that point.

2.  The reasons that American students tests scores are below middle-class European nations is that we have (1) a large population of students descended from slaves who were forbidden to learn to read and then from people who were deliberately consigned to inferior schools and (2) a large population of students from immigrant families whose mastery of English is none too good.

The top nations in terms of student test scores, such as Finland, are countries with strong unions, and the worst-performing U.S. states are states without strong unions, so union-bashing isn’t an answer.

I don’t deny there are bad teachers, bad schools and bad urban school systems, as well as indifferent parents, but there also are good teachers, good schools, good urban school systems, and parents who are deeply concerned with their children.  It’s easy, and lazy, to lump them all together, but then you can’t tell the difference, and you can’t accomplish anything.

Charter schools have a place, even though only one in five outperform the public schools.  The benefit of charter schools is that they provide a way to try out new ideas, so that the new ideas that work can be duplicated in the schools at large.  They are not a replacement for public schools. Giving up on public schools is giving up on educating poor children.